In this episode of In Our Hands, Ramanan Raghavendran speaks with Khadeeja Naseem, the State Minister of the Environment, Climate Change, and Technology for the Maldives.
They discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by the climate crisis, particularly for small island states like the Maldives, emphasizing the importance of strong leadership, political will, and taking the necessary actions to address the climate crisis and protect vulnerable nations.
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Hajja Naseem [00:00] So if you want to keep the 1.5 degrees alive, it requires bold leadership, it requires a political will, and it requires people to really do some uncomfortable things to get the world back on track for countries like us to actually survive.
Ramanan [00:16] Welcome to In Our Hands, a podcast about the challenges and opportunities presented by the climate crisis. Each episode features a new thinker at the front lines of the battle to save our planet. Join us as we delve into the complexities of this global challenge and seek actionable ways to build a sustainable future.
Ramanan [00:38] Welcome, everybody. We are very fortunate to have with us today Khadeeja Naseem, or Hajja Naseem, as she prefers to be called, who is the State Minister of the Environment, Climate Change, and Technology for the Maldives. She holds a Master of Environment from the University of Melbourne, Australia, and has over eight years of experience working in international organizations, NGOs, and various government agencies. Prior to her appointment to State Minister, she served as the Environment and Climate Specialist at the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, and Technology.
Hajja, thank you very much for your time today. Could you talk us through your life and career? What made you decide to join politics?
Hajja Naseem [01:22] Thank you so much for having me on your podcast. First of all, I really appreciate it. My name is Hajja Naseem. I am from the Maldives, and I grew up in the Maldives with my family, and I've been living in Malé until I was 16.
Then I moved to Norway to go to boarding school. So I won a scholarship to UWC. Yeah, so I went to UWC. So I spent two years there, which I think had a really, really big impact on me, and it opened me up to the world and so many things. So here I come from a very small island. I had not been outside of the Maldives much other than a trip to Singapore and to the neighboring India. But really, that's it.
And then I came to Norway, and I have so many international students on one campus. We're in the middle of nowhere, and it really, it really opened my eyes to the world and to the different religions, cultures, and the global issues. So that really had a very big impact on me. And then I went on to do a gap year, and I did work in the startup of the UWC in Bosnia as well, which was another eye opening experience. And then I moved to the states afterwards. I lived in Bar Harbor, Maine. I know it's so random to say this, but I lived behind Acadia National Park, which is so beautiful, and I now regret taking it for granted and wish I went on more hikes and more nature trips.
Ramanan [02:59] But Maine is much colder than the Maldives.
Hajja Naseem [03:03] It's much colder. It's much colder, but it's interesting. Like every time, so I lived near the Fjords in Norway, and I was on Mount Desert Island, so I still live next to the ocean; so it's an island still, but very different and very hard. Again, it was another transformative experience for me. I studied human ecology, and, you know, farm-to-table food. We had renewable energy on campus, composting toilets, and were very forward-looking. It's a very small school, but it really was, actually, taught us to live sustainably in a sense. And so this really kind of shaped me in many ways.
Ramanan [03:45] Did you always know you would return to the Maldives? Was that always sort of the plan?
Hajja Naseem [03:52] I wouldn't say for sure that it was always part of the plan, but I have to say that in all my summer breaks or in all of my breaks, always, if I'm home, I'm there. And I'm not just there only for holiday. I've always volunteered or done some work or traveled the islands. And I really care deeply about the Maldives. And I'm also a very family-oriented person. So because my parents are at home and I was the first one to go to college in my family and everyone's home. So I really always enjoyed going back home. And the immediate reaction to people who get the chance to go abroad would be, well, now you have the whole world out there. You could just be out there. But I guess it wasn't like that for me because I did contemplate a lot. But at the end of the day, I got drawn to going back home, and I went home, and I have been there.
Ramanan [04:48] Can you just give us a snippet of how you ended up in politics?
Hajja Naseem [04:53] So, actually, it would be funny to say….So, we’ve had, the Maldives have had a long struggle for democracy. So there was 30 years of dictatorship, and this was changed in 2008. And in 2008, I was still a student in college, and I remember coming home for six months to do partly an internship, but really it was also because of a very defining moment for the Maldives when we're about to vote for the first time in a multi-party Democratic elections in all our lifetime.
And so this was really exciting. And I actually was home and was a little bit part of the campaign of the then-presidential candidate Mohammed Nashid. And also, my family has always been very politically active, and so I have that inbuilt in me to be part of such a change. So I never imagined myself to be in politics in that sense. But when I moved home…so this really made me very excited, and it was an exciting time for the Maldives. And then I moved back home in 2011, and a year later, we had a military coup and the government fell.
Ramanan [06:16] Right.
Hajja Naseem [06:16] And so it always, it brings a lot of emotion in me because people have worked so hard to get the freedoms we had, and we keep sliding back. And so I've always been very concerned, but I had not worked in government. I've always worked with the government in transparency, in UNDP, in World Bank contracts, and in the Maldives and Red Crescent. But when the government changed again in 2018, I was given the opportunity to be part of the government, and I got appointed to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change and Technology. This is how I got into the space. So my first thing that I had to do in government was to accompany President Nashid, who at the time went to Poland as the president's special envoy for climate change. And so this was my entry into it, and I was given the climate change department to oversee, and this is how I got into the negotiation space. And it's just been a really interesting five years, to say the least. I have learned a lot and grown a lot, and I think we've done exciting things in government.
Ramanan [07:34] Well, we're going to now talk a little bit about that. To frame the discussion for our audience, which may vaguely know where the Maldives is, but doesn't know much more, can we start with a couple of comments from you on how the climate crisis is impacting and could further impact the Maldives?
Hajja Naseem [07:55] So the Maldives is, of course, if you know about the Maldives, it's first of all, a very beautiful country. It's known as a high-end tourism destination. We are a large ocean state, a small island state. We are 1187 islands in the Indian Ocean, of which roughly 200 are resorts. We have one island, one hotel concept, and we have an equal amount of inhabited islands, and we are only a meter above sea level.
So this is very, it makes us very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and especially in the context that we are currently living in the 1.1 or 1.2 world, 1.2 degrees Celsius world. And the 1.5 is when things are going to be really bad for small island states because, at 1.5, the coral reefs are expected to really take a hit. The Maldives is entirely dependent on our ocean for our livelihoods. And we are people from the islands and everything is connected for us.
So fisheries and tourism are our two main industries. And for us, it's just not only the livelihoods, but the islands like, our way of life. Everything is connected to the ocean. And so we, of course, the climate crisis is an existential crisis for us, and so it's no joke. And time is running out. And nowadays we're getting more and more storm surges, swells when it rains. It rains harder and it's shorter periods of time, but it's more intense and there's more flooding. And sometimes some islands are facing similar crises twice in the space of a couple of months. So the government has to constantly address these issues.
And also we have run out of freshwater on all of the islands in the Maldives. So we have desalination. The government has actually completed the desalination systems on all of the islands. We are doing the rainwater harvesting and the combination of desalination to address this problem. So, as you can see, for a country like the Maldives, it's very expensive to address these issues of critical infrastructure because most of our powerhouses, our schools, our hospitals, they are only 100 meters from the shoreline. The islands are very small. So when something happens, all of these are in danger, and basically, all of them can get affected.
So what happens to us is the funds, the national budget that we would otherwise spend on education, we would otherwise spend on social welfare, we would otherwise do on all kinds of development activities have to be diverted to addressing the sudden disasters or the sudden issues that are caused by the increase of the climate impacts. And so this has a real implication on our fiscal space. It has an implication of how we are able to do development. And it's a real challenge for the government in terms of balancing what we need to do for our sustainable development versus how we are addressing the existing problems.
This is in the backdrop of the fact that we are also a country that also has to deal with debt. It's a whole mixture of things. On top of that, you have to imagine, even in the COVID crisis, for instance, it really highlighted our vulnerabilities because the Maldives imports maybe 90% of our food. For instance, we spend 10% of our GDP importing oil, which is needed to run the whole country. So this really highlighted our, you know, because the world is all interconnected, basically. One crisis on top of another crisis just exacerbates the situation. And it really forced us to really think of how to pivot our build-back better mode into the greener and more sustainable ways in the backdrop of a whole lot of other complications. Like, still we are a young democracy, political instability, all kinds of issues. So it's a hot mess. If I would say it in a simple way.
Ramanan [12:59] I have to say when you speak in this way and you're so eloquent, I can't imagine the stresses. I truly cannot. And that's actually an interesting transition, which is that I'm living here in the developed West, and I, obviously the government, under the leadership of many people, including you, is doing a bunch of things to fight. What are your biggest points of frustration in dealing with developed nations when it comes to pushing for climate action and commitments? And I should tell our audience, you're in the middle of this because you're in New York City for the Climate Conference.
Hajja Naseem [13:43] I think it's really important to highlight here that my biggest frustration is the lack of political will from the developed countries because it's not that you cannot not do it. You can - there are people who can make decisions that will have a really big impact on the lives of the most vulnerable population of the world. I know there are lots of think tanks. There are lots of universities, academics, NGOs, and lots of concerned citizens. But, the unfortunate truth here is you can do a lot of advocacy and push for a lot of things, but there are some people with a lot of power who can take action that would really have a big impact. So I think this whole situation where we are going forward to Cop 28 as well because this is the year of the global stock tick, we are going to be course correcting.
Hajja Naseem [14:41] But I mean really, there's no option of not course correcting here because of what's at stake here. It's the lives of a lot of people at stake here. So if you want to keep the 1.5 degrees alive, you need seriously to cut emissions. And because we aren't able to cut emissions, we've had to deal with adaptation.
But because there's no funds for adaptation and because we are like cascading into all of these things now, we have moved into the space of loss and damage.
So it's actually getting more and more expensive and I would say messier to deal with. And I think this requires really good, it requires bold leadership, it requires the political will and it requires people to really do some uncomfortable things to get the world back on track for countries like us to actually survive.
I think one of my biggest frustrations would be the reluctance — or you need to see more leadership and political will then, rather than all the discussions we keep having in circles and going around and around.
Ramanan [15:50] We totally agree with you. And the recent news out of the UK, and the UK government's actions over the last few days are not exactly inspirational. We'll stay away from that topic just for this discussion and move to maybe, I don't want to say more positive things, but some of the more action-oriented things that are going on. You are, as we mentioned, State Minister of the Environment, Climate Change and Technology, and our audience is a tech-oriented audience.
[16:21] Can you share a little more, if you can, about the role of technology and environmental data in addressing climate issues in the Maldives?
Hajja Naseem [16:29] So I think it's a really interesting mix of having the portfolios of climate change, environment, and technology under one ministry because of course the technology mandate pertains to a lot of the things that the government is doing in terms of moving to e-governance and all of that. But on the other hand, we are also focusing on using technology to improve our data collection and the understanding of the natural environment and on finding solutions, especially for our adaptation needs, and also the use of technology to increase the participation of the citizens. So like citizen science and how to use this in schools to enhance the role of participation and make finding the solutions, implementing our policies, and giving more ownership to the local councils and the communities to take the actions required.
So far we have things in various stages of partnerships with the World Bank and some education institutions where we want to use the technology in terms of using drones to monitor what's happening to our coastline or satellite imagery as well to really understand what's happening to coastlines. Because one of the things that we have to face as ministers in government is that islands would always come and request for, you know, because the number one thing that we have to deal with is erosion and the declining of the coastal lines. And so, what do we do? We put harbors there and we build infrastructure.
But are we building the infrastructure in the right place or are we really understanding what's happening to the whole island before we are doing the designs? And are we incorporating the best technology or the materials that are actually making the island more resilient? Or are we actually contributing to maladaptation without knowing? And the thing is, in a country like the Maldives, we don't have the access to all of these things that are actually required to make the best decisions, in a sense. Sometimes due to budgetary constraints, we aren't able to incorporate all of this.
[19:01] So I think technology has a role to play in making the decisions better, in making data collection and the use of data more accessible, and then for policymakers to be able to do things better, save more money for the future, and strengthen the resilience for our islands, really.
So that's why I think technology can play a really big role in decentralizing and getting more people on board and also fostering more curiosity and knowledge also among the students.
Ramanan [19:42] That is super helpful. I just have a couple more questions, Hajja. Just so we are efficient with your time as you're fighting the good fight. One of the questions, this is one I actually have had for a long time before we were introduced to you. Tourism and fishing, as you mentioned, are two of the Maldives most important industries. Both of them also implicate climate and the environment in different ways.
[20:08] And yet you need to uplift the whole country to a state of economic well-being. How do you even think about balancing those things?
Hajja Naseem [20:17] Well, so this is the thing. I mean, we are from the ocean. Everything we do is from the ocean. And so this is why we have to really respect it for what it is and try to keep it in the best health possible. But of course, it's transboundary. The Maldives cannot by itself tackle this issue, so this is why we need the cooperation and collaboration of the entire globe, in a sense, to keep the oceans healthy and to tackle climate because it has very serious implications.
So, in terms of fisheries, the Maldives is, of course, a fishing nation. We are the most sustainably fishing nation in the world, I can say very proudly, because we fish one by one. And so it's not easy. It's not possible to do mass fishing and all of those harmful forms of fisheries. We have traditionally, and this is how we've caught fish; it's one by one. And I feel that one thing that the Maldives really needs is to get the right pricing for our sustainability efforts and for the fishermen to be rewarded for these efforts. Because we need to actually, for a country that's doing the right thing, we should not be getting any kinds of penalties or taxes or whatever abroad. These are the kinds of things that matter to us. So fishing is, of course, going to be really affected.
[21:57] And I'm going to tell you something about how there's also a correlation between the fishing and tourism industry as well. So the tourism, of course, the tourists come for the pristine waters and the natural beauty that the Maldives is. And of course, with the increasing climate impacts, of course the tourism industry would also have to be rethinking how they do business.
And also we get more and more conscious travelers to the Maldives. So there is a demand for more, how do I say a more environmentally friendly product.
Yeah, so that's something that's actually a positive sign. And we want people to come to the Maldives. But of course, this year has been the hottest year ever recorded, and these things are going to have an impact on our coral reefs. And so once we get a bleaching event, it's very devastating to even the tourism industry because the people come to the Maldives to see the beautiful bright coral reefs. And now if it's going to be all white and bleached, that's a problem for us. And that's going to have an impact on the bait fishery. That's going to have an impact in relation to the fisheries.
It's all very connected. And so for us, moving forward, we had to, of course, think of how to strengthen these sectors and to ensure that in the face of the 1.1 world and the 1.2 and 1.5 to come, what are we going to do about the livelihoods of all of these people? And how are we going to do these industries in ways that's more climate-friendly and climate-smart? So there is going to be like, we have to be thinking of insurance products for fishermen and for the tourism industry as well.
And so this is going to be an interesting thing because there's going to be the involvement of the private sector on the one hand, more on the tourism sector. And for the fisheries, there's going to be more for the public, but also there's going to be some amount of private sector involvement. So this really makes people think in terms of investments as well, in terms of how you're going to be building the results, in ensuring energy efficiency, in using more renewables, in ensuring that your structures are more stable, and then you use building methods that are less harmful to the environment.
All of those things. And also for the fishermen, we have to like, really make the awareness a big thing on the endangered species or what you can do and what you cannot do. So there is lots to do on the educational aspects and awareness aspects and lots of things on the policy side in terms of ensuring that you make these industries. You have to kind of climate-proof it, but you also have to have products for when things go really bad. Like, what are the financing mechanisms available and what are the relief that's going to be available at the end of it? Realize that there are people who are the center of these. It's about the people's well-being in life, and so think of that and create the policies that will have the most benefit on them.
Ramanan [25:25] Hajja, I'm going to wrap up here with a very open-ended final question, which is look, you've been so eloquent and you've said a lot of things here that I did not know and I'm somewhat engaged, and knowledgeable about climate. So I think our audience will find it revelational. For the average person who is climate aware in the developed West, and that's a chunk of our audience, what message would you give them about how they should think about this issue?
Hajja Naseem [25:57] I mean, I think first of all, in terms of a climate justice angle, I think it's so important to be aware of the climate, of climate change, and what it means to a person in a small island state or someone in Libya versus someone in the United States. And I think it's important to use your agency, in wherever it is that you are, to really push for changes or to foster more environmentally friendly ways of life. And so people arent always so overwhelmed either.
I mean, I understand the whole mental health crisis behind this very catastrophic doomsday kind of scenario of climate and it's true, it exists, but we have to think from the lens of hope.
[26:58] Every small thing adds up. So, you have the power to do some lifestyle changes or choose the better way, I guess, and really have an impact on how we all live in a sense.
But also if you're someone with the agency to push for reforms in your community on changing from fossil fuels to green energy, to go from the normal existing way of transport to the E-transport, to really push for recycling, to participate in the move to the net zeros of the cities, you can take action in so many levels at schools, in businesses, in city levels, in the regional level. So it's not just all of these countries up here in the UNFCCC with their country name tags like talking at each other, but it's at so many levels.
[28:12] So I think I would say that you're all empowered, use your agency and push for change and we need more people who care, because when people care and then things come from the heart, I always feel that you'll see more changes happening, and so that's what I would say.
Ramanan [28:22] That was very eloquent. That's a great way to finish. I want to thank you so much for making time in this window where you're super busy, and I fully expect that this is not going to be the last time we talk and I want to wish you the very best of luck, obviously for the elections, because of your role.
Hajja Naseem [28:42] Thank you so much and I really appreciate having this opportunity.